Absurdity is reality for Virginia basketball

[READ COLUMN IN THE CAVALIER DAILY]

In the world of sports, some things just aren’t supposed to happen.

Lionel Messi is not supposed to miss an open shot on goal. Teams from Cleveland are not supposed to hoist trophies. Virginia Tech is not supposed to make the NCAA Tournament. And basketball players are not supposed to morph into arthritic invertebrates upon touching a ball in the waning seconds of a game.

Virginia’s late-game collapse against Miami on Thursday was no mere choke job; it was a meltdown of epic proportions. It was the stuff of legends. Down by 10 with 40 seconds to play? That would require a comeback beyond the capacity of the Chicago Bulls playing against Charlottesville High’s JV squad.

But somehow, some way, it was not out of the question for a Miami team that seemed to have completely forgotten how to put the ball in the basket. The ice cold ‘Canes missed 17 of their first 19 shots in the second half and had accumulated only 12 points in 19 minutes of play.

Then they scored 10 points in a span of 24 seconds.

Even Jerry Ratcliffe, a reporter for The Daily Progress who has been covering Virginia basketball for decades, admitted he had never seen anything like it.

History allows us to make comparisons to other great college basketball comebacks, but nothing fully matches up with the circumstances surrounding Thursday’s debacle. Remember Jason Williams’s “Miracle Minute” from 10 years ago? Duke was down 90-80 against Maryland with 54 seconds left in regulation before Williams shook off his poor play with a scintillating flurry of steals and buckets that sent the game into overtime.

But while that comeback largely was orchestrated by the brilliance of one player, Miami’s comeback came gift-wrapped by a Virginia team that simply shot itself in the foot time and time again by missing free throws, throwing the ball out of bounds and even handing the ball to the other team right under the basket.

A better comparison can be made to North Carolina’s famous 1974 comeback against Duke, when the Tar Heels overcame an eight-point deficit with 17 seconds remaining to force overtime and eventually win the game. Much like Miami against Virginia, Carolina took advantage of missed free throws and turnovers under the basket to rack up points quickly against a team dizzied by sheer panic.

Unlike Thursday’s contest, though, that comeback was mounted by a team that was much better than the one it faced. Virginia and Miami clashed on a neutral site as the ACC Tournament’s eight and nine seeds, respectively, meaning the Cavaliers were not clinging to a lead on the road against a superior team. When you combine those factors with how confidently Virginia was playing during the game’s final minutes and how hopeless Miami looked down the stretch, you can argue that Thursday’s whirlwind turnaround represented the most improbable comeback in college basketball history.

Yet the improbable comeback label is incomplete without recognizing the colossal choke that propelled it, as the Cavaliers’ consistent compliance with Murphy’s Law made Greg Norman look like the most clutch athlete of all time. Unlike the 2001 Maryland team that withered in the wake of Steve Blake fouling out, Virginia fell apart with the same lineup that carried it to a 53-43 lead with 40 seconds remaining.

During the game’s final 90 seconds, Sammy Zeglinski went 0-for-3 from the free throw line, let a bounce pass slip out of bounds through his legs and wrestled with teammate Mustapha Farrakhan for a rebound that eventually bounced off Farrakhan’s foot and out of bounds. Assane Sene forgot to front his man on an inbound pass that allowed Miami’s Julian Gamble a free lane to the rim for an easy jam. Jontel Evans threw a shaky pass under Zeglinski’s legs and then inbounded the ball directly into the mitts of Durand Scott, who converted the easy layup in the process of being fouled by Farrakhan. Will Sherrill passed up on an open Zeglinski on the ensuing inbound, instead opting to toss the ball to Gamble, whose buzzer-beating heave nearly gave Sherrill’s basketball career one of the most embarrassing endings ever witnessed.

With their eyes glazed over and their heads spinning like dreidels, the Cavaliers were too busy choking on their own shock to stop the bleeding that came from Miami’s murderous onslaught. When your opponent suddenly pours on the pressure and threatens to derail your entire season, the hardest thing to do is maintain your composure the same way you would at any other time.

Still, Virginia didn’t need any heroics to win the game. All it needed to do was complete a pass and hold onto the ball. What remains so remarkable is that the team failed to do either of those things.

The magnitude of Thursday’s calamity dwindles in light of its status as a mere first-round conference tournament game, but its impact always will linger with at least two people: Sherrill and Farrakhan. The two seniors will be haunted for a long time by the inglorious ending to their college basketball careers, knowing they were mere seconds away from continuing the progress of a budding program.

But one bizarre loss cannot erase the accomplishments of Virginia’s winningest season since 2007-08. Picked to finish 11th in the ACC, the Cavaliers ended the regular season in eighth place with a season sweep of Virginia Tech and a road victory against then-No. 15 Minnesota. They stayed strong even after Mike Scott went down with a season-ending injury, and they fought through Zeglinski’s and Sherrill’s injuries as well.

If nothing else, Thursday’s loss will push the team to the brink in the offseason. With many key players returning and a solid recruiting class on the way, maybe Virginia can make an improbable comeback of its own.

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